The endangered species at the heart of Sonoma State University professor Laura Alice Watt’s new book is Homo sapiens, specifically the ranching families of the Point Reyes National Seashore.
Watt, whose academic focus on the windswept Marin County peninsula goes back 20 years, is not sanguine about their prospects for survival.
The Point Reyes ranchers’ future is on hold pending the outcome of a lawsuit alleging that cattle grazing harms the public land they lease from the government, while they also face increasingly marginal dairy and beef cattle operations, Watt said.
And if cattle grazing comes to an end, the landscape savored by 2.5 million seashore visitors each year will be dramatically altered.
“If you took all the grazing off Point Reyes you’re not going to have those emerald hills we all love so much,” Watt, 50, said in an interview at her home on Sonoma Mountain, just west of the SSU campus.
The peninsula’s rolling coastal prairies, kept open by foraging cattle just as they were by centuries of intentional burning by Miwok tribes, would be overgrown by coyote brush, Douglas fir and other vegetation.
“I am worried,” Watt said. “There’s a point where ranching is just not going to function anymore.”
That concern permeates her new book, “The Paradox of Preservation,” released in late November by University of California Press. In December, it was a top-10 seller at University Press Books, just across the street from the Cal campus.
The 345-page book, scrupulously researched with 860 footnotes, likely won’t make Watt any money to cover her pastimes of sailboat racing on San Francisco Bay and photography. Academic books are lucky to break even on financially, said the tenured professor of environmental history and policy.
Her hope is that “Paradox” may help the public and the National Park Service, which operates the 71,000-acre seashore, embrace the idea that preservation of wild places can also accommodate the human footprint, including sustainable farming, rather than steadfastly seeking to wipe it away.
“Point Reyes has long been ideally suited to be managed as … a place where the wild and the pastoral are not in competition but are complementary, thriving side by side,” she wrote.
The book is an extension of her 253-page doctoral dissertation on Point Reyes, started in 1997 and completed in 2001. “Paradox” updates the story with an additional 15 years of history, including an upheaval over oysters that Watt said took her by surprise.
At Point Reyes, oyster farming in Drake’s Estero, a 2,500-acre Pacific Ocean estuary, had been going on for 80 years until it was halted — by a Park Service edict bitterly contested in public and in dueling legal briefs but ultimately upheld by the federal courts — in December 2014.
One of Watt’s favorite places in Point Reyes is the tidelands where Schooner Creek flows into the estero, near the beach where all traces of the oyster company have been eradicated in a $4 million Park Service restoration project aimed at restoring the waterway to as close to a natural state as possible.
Watt does not consider herself a partisan in the seven-year skirmish that sharply divided the West Marin community, though she did file a friend of the court brief in support of agriculture and aquaculture continuing in Point Reyes.